RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Silicosis is another disease which affects the lungs. Sufferers can't get enough oxygen and they become weak. There's no cure. The cause is breathing in dust that contains tiny particles of silica, which is essentially sand. The ancient Greeks knew that stone cutters often got this disease. Today, workers can encounter silica dust while doing all types of jobs - mining, manufacturing, construction, anything that involves breaking up rock, brick or concrete.
Last year, it looked like the Department of Labor was about to put more strict controls on how much silica workers could be exposed to. But as NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce reports, the government's plan seems to have stalled.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: The government's effort to stop workers from getting silicosis began a long time ago.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: 1935, a wave of fear was sweeping the country. Silicosis was taking its toll from the ranks of American workers.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The Department of Labor put out this film in 1938. It shows workers in a granite quarry surrounded by big plumes of dust.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The trade calls these tools jackhammers, but workmen often call them widow makers.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: The point of this film was to teach people how to control the dust with ventilation, safety masks and wet cutting techniques. But today, experts estimate that there's still thousands of new silicosis cases each year and hundreds of deaths. And silica has also been linked to other diseases, like lung cancer.
DR. TEE GUIDOTTI: It's almost unbelievable that we have allowed something like this to go on for so long, without an effective means of controlling it.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Tee Guidotti is a physician in Washington, D.C. who specializes in occupational health. He says the government does limit the amount of silica workers can be exposed to, but that limit dates back to the 1960s. He says a safe limit would be half what's currently allowed.
GUIDOTTI: You would get almost no cases of silicosis at that level, and you would get no more than, I think it's one in a hundred thousand or one in a million of new cases of lung cancer. So that is considered to be the acceptably safe level.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So he was pleased that last Valentine's Day, the Department of Labor sent a new proposal for regulating silica to the White House Office of Management and Budget. That office has to review the proposal before it's made public, and that review was expected to take 90 days. But as the one-year anniversary approaches, safety advocates are wondering what's holding things up. Records show that officials have held nine private meetings on the issue.
Guidotti went to one, which was requested by a medical group, the American Thoracic Society. He says officials didn't ask too many questions.
GUIDOTTI: But you could tell from what they did ask, that they were very well-briefed. So they know about this. They know it well.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Most of the other meetings were with industry groups, like the American Chemistry Council's Crystalline Silica Panel.
Jackson Morrill, heads this coalition of companies and industry associations. He says they asked officials not to lower the level that workers can be exposed to. He says the current level is adequate to protect worker health and safety, and that any changes could cost billions. He says the real problem is employers who ignore the current rules and that the answer is better enforcement.
JACKSON MORRILL: And I think that's the way forward, and if we can reach universal compliance, it's certainly our hope that that would lead to an end to the silicosis issue.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Officials also heard concerns from the construction industry.
Robert Matuga is with the National Association of Home Builders. He says they shouldn't be regulated in the same way as mines or manufacturing plants, because in construction, silica exposures can change from day to day.
ROBERT MATUGA: One of the things about the construction industry is that the job sites are constantly changing. The tasks and activities are really variable as the project progresses.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: But worker safety groups say there are studies showing how to control silica in common construction tasks. They're growing increasingly frustrated that the proposed new regulations don't seem to be going anywhere. They met with White House officials to express their dismay.
Chris Trahan is with the Center for Construction Research and Training. She says their message was simple: Let the Department of Labor go public with its proposal and start a real debate, rather than having discussions behind closed doors.
CHRIS TRAHAN: Because it's not consistent with transparency; it's not consistent with open government. What would be consistent with that would be to allow the agency just to propose it. And let the process move forward.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: A spokesperson for the White House Office of Management and Budget said they don't comment on regulations under review. But it's not uncommon for reviews to be extended.
Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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